When I heard about this book I immediately wanted to read it, being a space enthusiast and very interested in the journey to Mars, I had to know how one man stranded on the Red Planet could try to survive.
Mark Watney an astronaut on the Ares 3 mission to Mars is left stranded following a storm. His crew thought he was dead after seeing his suit lose pressure and had no choice but to evacuate the planet. Miraculously he survives the storm only to realise that he has been left behind. He is forced to ration out his food and find a way to survive until the next planned mission to Mars.
This novel is incredibly scientific and filled with calculations and accurate assumptions about Mars. As a botanist and an engineer it doesn’t take long for Mark to become the first farmer on Mars. Using the potatoes planned for Thanksgiving, Mark prepares them for planting. By cutting each potato into segments with two eyes each he carries Martian dirt into the Hab which are his living quarters. He then mixes the dirt with his own waste to encourage the growth of bacteria for his potatoes. As well as food, Mark needs to increase his water, so it’s not long before he passes hydrazine over a catalyst to help produce water for his survival.
However being a bit of an outer-space junkie, I did notice some problems with the plot. To start with Mark is stranded on Mars following a dust storm with strong gusts of 175km/h that eventually blows him off his feet. On Mars however the strongest of dust storms would feel like a gentle breeze as the atmosphere is so thin. Another thing I found strange was Watney’s use of Martian soil to grow his potatoes, Martian soil is made of iron oxide which is visible with its red colour but it also contains sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium. However in 2008 the Phoenix Lander discovered traces of salt perchlorate which would make it very difficult to grow plants on Mars. Some plants can grow with this in the soil however measures would need to be taken before growing plants in Martian soil. It’s too salty and high in peroxides meaning the soil would need to be washed and cleaned first, otherwise it would kill the necessary bacteria immediately and the potatoes wouldn’t have grown.
Andy Weir has created a realistic character that has attitude and is wise cracking. Although no one can relate to being stranded on Mars, his emotions can be related to. He admits from the beginning he is screwed but doesn’t bow down to defeat for long before establishing an escape plan. Not forgetting I probably laughed at this book more than I should have. I’m sure your thinking I’m sadistic in laughing at a man stranded on Mars but Mark Watney is one hilarious character. Even during the times when it looks impossible he had some witty comeback or hilarious remark. Without a character like Mark Watney, this book would have been a scientific look at survival on Mars; instead what we have is a realistic look at an intelligent human being stranded on Mars. Apart from the few questionable scientific interpretations, this novel really does capture what it would be like to be the only person on an inhabitable planet.
This novel has come at the right time when NASA plans to reach Mars by 2030 and no doubt this will create some positive press for them and give them that nudge towards the necessary funding they need, that being $80 to $100 billion over the next 20 years. Not to mention the movie released starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney will play a big part in hitting an audience of film enthusiasts about a trip to Mars, even if they don’t read the book.
I would recommend this book to all audiences as it captures not just the mindset of space travel enthusiasts but also that of scientists, adult readers and those looking for a unique and capturing plot. I would love to see a follow up novel and see how Mark Watney adapts to being back on Earth and what direction his life takes. I know Andy Weir stumbled into becoming an author as The Martian was only designed as a project on his website, being released for free one chapter at a time, but fingers crossed it inspires him to pick up a pen and keep jotting in the hard science fiction genre.
(Review by Samantha Steed, Education Support Officer)